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Op-Ed: Sonoma County’s misguided planning for cannabis

Ray Krauss, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to address the severe compatibility problems with cannabis cultivation in rural neighborhoods. Last year, the supervisors committed to fixing these problems but ultimately refused to do much.

The supervisors need to acknowledge the fundamental issue. The reason there are so many “problem sites” is that they turned the planning process upside down. Even if all current problem sites were denied permits, there will be more applications for cannabis cultivation at different problem sites.

The proper way to proceed is to identify sites that are suitable, based on a set of planning criteria, rather than identifying problem sites after a permit is requested. That is how all other planning is done. In preparing general plans and zoning maps, planners identify those areas where specified uses are environmentally suitable and compatible with surrounding uses. Thus, we end up identifying commercial zones, industrial zones, multi-family residential zones (apartments and condos) and residential zones. Those areas not so identified don’t allow any of these uses.

The county should return to normal zoning. It should evaluate environmental and land use information and identify areas where cannabis grows are suitable, based on such criteria as:

— Availability of water, power, sewer and storm water drainage.

— Groundwater basins where water use won’t adversely affect the environment.

— Adequate and safe road access.

— Avoiding incompatible residential sites, schools, parks, trails and recreation sites.

— Accessibility to law enforcement.

— Avoiding risks of wildfire, landslides, flooding and other natural hazards.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9493059-181/close-to-home-sonoma-countys

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Geyserville property owner fined for diverting, polluting streams to grow marijuana

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A Geyserville property owner who launched a medical cannabis farm has agreed to pay $245,000 in fines and penalties for what Sonoma County prosecutors said was improper water diversion, unpermitted grading and site work that harmed streams in the Russian River watershed.

Property owner Darryl Crawford, a Napa-based investor with experience building wine cellars, said most of the issues on the sprawling 330-acre Geysers Road property stemmed from old roads, water systems and other features built decades ago by a prior owner.

But state Fish and Wildlife officials said that unauthorized work that Crawford had done on the property, including attempts to stop sediment from flowing into streams, created additional problems. Prosecutors said also that the cultivation site was graded without a permit.

Prosecutors sued Crawford and his companies Black Mountain Developers and Cold Creek Group in an effort to get them to comply with environmental regulations and acquire the needed permits to improve the site’s roads and water systems, Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White said.

“The penalties were high because the conduct was egregious and lasted for a long time,” Gallagher White said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9460580-181/geyserville-property-owner-fined-for

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Climate Change & EnergyTags , ,

As home pot growers left the region last year, Sonoma Clean Power lost $10 million in revenue

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

They’re called “superusers” within the power industry, those electricity customers using as much as 200 times the amount of energy in a month than a typical household.

Some of them have big estates, horse stables or electric cars. A small number are older mobile home parks operating on one utility meter. Most are likely growing marijuana indoors, local power agency officials said.

Last year, these “superuser” customers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties with monthly electric bills as high as $20,000 started to disappear.

About 300 homes using the most power in the region closed their accounts or dramatically decreased energy consumption in May and June of 2018, according to Sonoma Clean Power, the area’s green power agency. Although small in number, the loss of these major customers contributed to an unexpected $10 million drop in revenue and expenses last year, agency CEO Geof Syphers said.

After scrambling to figure out why these customers were disappearing, power agency officials determined they corresponded with a marked shift in where marijuana is and isn’t being grown in the region and state, he said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9453610-181/as-home-pot-growers-left

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , ,

The wrong way to plan for cannabis cultivation

Ray Krauss and Craig S. Harrison, THE KENWOOD PRESS

On April 16, the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to direct Permit Sonoma to address the severe compatibility problems with cannabis cultivation in rural neighborhoods. Last year the supervisors publicly committed to amending the cannabis ordinance to fix these problems, but ultimately failed to do much.

The supervisors need to acknowledge the fundamental problem. The primary reason there are so many “problem sites” with cannabis cultivation is that they turned the planning process upside down. Even if all problem sites today were denied permits, there will be more applications for new problem sites in the future.

The proper way to proceed is to identify sites that are suitable based on a set of planning criteria, not identify sites where there may be problems. That is how all other planning is done. For example, in preparing the General Plan and Zoning Maps, planners identify those areas where specified uses are environmentally suitable and compatible with surrounding uses. Thus, we end up with identified commercial zones, industrial zones, multi-residential zones (apartments and condos) and residential zones. Those areas not so identified do not allow any of these uses.

Similarly, the county should study its environmental and land use information and identify locations where cannabis grows are suitable based on criteria such as:

• Areas where public water and other necessary public services are available including power, sewer, storm water drainage, etc.

• If not on public water, areas located in a groundwater basin where water use will not impact environmental resources.

• Areas served by adequate and safe road access.

• Areas remote from incompatible residential sites.

• Areas remote from public and private schools.

• Areas remote from public and private parks, children’s camps, trails and other recreation sites.

• Areas easily secured and accessible to law enforcement.

• Areas free of extreme or high danger of wildfire.

• Areas free of landslides, flooding and other natural hazards.

• Areas free of rare and endangered or sensitive plants.

• Areas free of historic and/or archaeological resources.

• Areas free of important wildlife habitat and corridors.

• Areas free of other identified incompatibilities.

Once areas meeting these criteria are identified and mapped, planners would normally do an assessment of how much suitable land can be projected as reasonably necessary to meet current and future demand (20 years for a General Plan).

The proposed suitable areas are then presented to the public in hearings, and after considering all public comment, the planners select those areas where permits for grows will be considered.

Individual proposals are then evaluated to make sure that they indeed meet all of the necessary criteria. They go through the Conditional Use Permit and California Environmental Quality Act processes where the public has an opportunity to provide comment and participate in public hearings.

This is how planning has always been done. The county’s failure to undertake the appropriate planning process is why we have problems with grows in unsuitable areas. The county has never previously done planning for any other land use by asking for the public to identify unsuitable or problem sites. They always do an analysis and pick areas that are most likely to be suitable. The county’s approach is like allowing anyone to locate a junkyard anywhere unless enough neighbors show up after the fact and complain.

These controversies could have been avoided if the county had undertaken the usual, normal planning process that is applied to all other land uses. The proposed Phase II compatibility planning process should follow the normal and appropriate planning process described above.

The supervisors should never have assigned the planning effort to Economic Development instead of Permit Sonoma. Economic Development does not have the experience or expertise to manage the land use planning for cannabis grows.

The county got into its public controversy dilemma because it falsely assumed that cannabis grows are “just agriculture.” That’s like saying pig farms and dairies are “just agriculture.”

Most of the remote places proposed for commercial cannabis cultivation would otherwise only accommodate what is called “extensive agriculture.” Perhaps a few cattle at best. The sites in the Mark West Watershed would not be suitable for vineyards or any other intensive agriculture. Most wouldn’t even support grazing.

Growers use imported soil and heated containers in commercial structures with artificial lighting, none of which is normal agriculture.

Once the county assumed cannabis production is the equivalent of a vegetable garden (or a potato patch, as one county official opined) and ignored the accompanying huge water use, fire hazards, multiple employees, traffic generation, pesticide use, noxious odors, crime, and a plethora of other impacts that of necessity accompany cannabis production, the planning process went awry.

To address adequately the compatibility problems with rural neighborhoods, the supervisors need to acknowledge the impacts and quit trying to fit the round cannabis peg in the square “just agriculture” hole.

Ray Krauss is a retired environmental planner who lives in the Mark West Watershed.

Craig S. Harrison is a retired lawyer who lives in Bennett Valley.

Source: http://www.kenwoodpress.com/pub/a/10428?full=1

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , , ,

Cannabis and the environment

Heather Bailey, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

In an industry that wants to be seen as green, what are the real impacts? The answer is, no one knows for sure.

When you hear anti-cannabis groups complain about the impacts of legal cultivation, one concern that is often expressed is the impact on natural resources and the environment caused by growing cannabis. But how significant are those impacts, and what do they consist of? The answer is, it’s hard to say.

The research on impacts is limited and has been done almost exclusively on illegal grows. The fact they were illegal limited funding for research, limited what grows could be studied and creates significant questions as to whether the research findings can be predictive of the impacts from legal operations.

Sonoma County cannabis ordinances for legal cultivation have a strong environmental protection component, including pages of regulations about water and watersheds alone.

But are they enough? Research into environmental impacts of legal operations are in their infancy, so it may take time and research to determine best practices.

Read more at http://www.sonomawest.com/cannabis-and-the-environment/article_e1566fb4-a249-11e8-b62e-bfe48d93d62c.html

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , ,

Sonoma County endorses limits on cannabis production, curbs on neighbors’ protests

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday advanced revisions to rules governing cannabis businesses and farms outside city limits that would include allowing recreational sales at dispensaries and limiting most cultivation sites to properties 10 acres or larger.

The Board of Supervisors rejected two proposals aimed at addressing an increasingly contentious debate over where outdoor growing should occur in Sonoma County. One would have allowed neighborhood groups to lobby supervisors to ban cultivation in their areas on a case-by-case basis. The other would have enabled cultivators to appeal to the board to allow cultivation in an area where it’s currently prohibited.

Instead, the board opted to balance the interests of the two competing interests — marijuana farmers and anti-pot neighborhood groups — by signaling support for a more thorough permitting process for smaller pot farms, which are more likely to prompt concerns from neighbors than larger ones, according to county officials.

“I’m hopeful we can come to a broad consensus,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “Having this (the rules) keep changing is really hard for (cannabis) operators and is really hard for neighbors who have no idea what the hell is going to happen. We need to expedite the permitting process to provide answers.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8611268-181/sonoma-county-endorses-limits-on

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Op-Ed: Keep commercial marijuana away from our parks

Deborah A. Eppstein and Craig S. Harrison, KENWOOD PRESS

We are shocked by proposed changes to the Cannabis Ordinance that would reduce buffer zones around parks to allow commercial marijuana cultivation on park borders. We think the current 1,000-foot setback from parks to neighboring parcel boundaries should be increased to 2,000 feet. Instead, on Aug. 7, the Board of Supervisors may decide to measure setbacks from the site of the grow instead of the parcel boundary, acquiescing to heavy lobbying by big growers. This would undermine the protection of our parks.

Why is the county rushing to authorize marijuana cultivation next to our parks and homes? It should employ the precautionary principle, as for any new business model. If transition from illegal to legal grows proceeds smoothly, the county can then reconsider modifications on where grows are permitted, based on real-life experience of what works and doesn’t for the community. Instead, the prevailing mood seems to be speed and greed.

Sonoma County is blessed with parks. Hood Mountain Regional Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Jack London State Park, Trione-Annadel State Park, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, and Taylor Mountain Regional Park are treasures. Why endanger them?

Robust buffer zones improve fire protection, facilitate finding illegal grows, and maintain the parks’ undeveloped nature with a transition zone. Allowing commercial grows to operate close by undermines enforcement and the safety of park visitors, who might encounter violence both from illegal grows masquerading as legal ones or legal grows near park boundaries. In rugged areas, it is common for hikers to wander beyond park boundaries. On Cougar Lane, which abuts Hood Mountain, growers often patrol their land with firearms and attack dogs. This intimidates neighbors and potentially hikers in the park.

Read more at http://www.kenwoodpress.com/pub/s/guested

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food SystemTags , , ,

California's multimillion-dollar pot farms are going up in smoke

Martha C. White, NBC NEWS
Talk about a buzz kill: In addition to charring acres of wine country north of San Francisco, California’s sweeping wildfires are also destroying cannabis farms in and around the state’s Emerald Triangle.
For many producers, the financial losses include not just harvest-ready crops, but recent investments in infrastructure to comply with licensing regulations in preparation for recreational marijuana legalization next year.
“The fires are hitting in an area of California that’s probably the predominant outdoor cultivation site in the country,” said Robert Frichtel, CEO of General Cannabis Corporation. “It has ideal growing conditions — the same reason they grow wine grapes in that region,” he said. “It arguably produces some of the highest-quality cannabis in the country.”
Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said it was impossible to know at this point how badly production had been affected, since evacuees from many fire-ravaged areas were not yet being allowed back to their farms.
“The basic reality here is we don’t know. What we know is bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse,” he told NBC News. On Thursday, Allen said he had confirmed that seven growers among his member base had lost their crops, worth between $3 million and $6 million at wholesale; by Friday morning, the number of members with lost crops was up to 21, and the aggressive spread of the fire led him to fear the worst.
Read more at: California’s Multimillion-Dollar Pot Farms Are Going Up in Smoke – NBC News

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , ,

Sonoma County cannabis advisory group begins setting agenda

Julie Johnson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

Sonoma County’s rules for how and where cannabis businesses can operate were codified earlier this year, but the book on local marijuana regulations is far from finished.
Helping the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adjust its local rules is the main job of a 20-person citizen advisory group chosen from cannabis industry players and other interest groups including real estate, agriculture, public health and neighborhoods.
The panel met for the first time Wednesday to start setting an agenda for issues and recommendations to bring before the board.
Read more at: Sonoma County cannabis advisory group begins setting agenda | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , , ,

State money available for cleaning former pot grow sites in Sonoma County

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Toxic chemicals. Dammed creeks. Forest clear-cuts. Abandoned trash.
These kinds of environmental degradation are the scourge of California’s North Coast, the detritus left behind from decades of highly profitable but unregulated marijuana cultivation.
But in a move state officials hope will make a dent in the thousands of remote sites in need of remediation, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is preparing to distribute $1.5 million for an initial round of watershed restoration projects made necessary by widespread and historically unchecked pot production.
“Existing damage to our watersheds due to unregulated cannabis cultivation is at crisis levels in terms of threats to habitat for aquatic and wildlife species,” agency Director Chuck Bonham said in a written news release.
“While many grow sites have been abandoned or shuttered, the infrastructure and ongoing damage remains.”
The newly launched Cannabis Restoration Grant Program reflects growing recognition of the devastating environmental impact of marijuana cultivation on private and public lands, even as public officials and the public itself moved to legalize its use in California, in part so it could be regulated.
Read more at: State money available for cleaning former pot grow sites in Sonoma County | The Press Democrat